I'm all for the separation of church and state. I believe that
government endorsement of any particular religious sect or tradition
has a corrosive effect on both the state and the faith in question. But
I also think the attempt to separate religion from government is
veering toward a foolish, parochial and ultimately impossible quest to
separate religion from culture.
Last week, the ACLU of Southern
California's Peter Eliasberg argued the case of Salazar vs. Buono
before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, which involves a cross that
has stood, in various forms, for 75 years as a memorial to World War I
veterans in the Mojave Desert, elicited a heated exchange between
Eliasberg and Justice Antonin Scalia.
In a debate over whether
the cross, which is on property surrounded by the Mojave National
Preserve, violates the 1st Amendment ban on the establishment of
religion, Eliasberg argued that a cross "is the predominant symbol of
Christianity" that "signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to
redeem mankind from our sins." Therefore, it shouldn't be allowed to
"stand alone" as a war memorial in a national park. Scalia offered a
different definition. "The cross is the most common symbol of the
resting place of the dead," he said. The Times reported that Scalia
"sharply disagreed" with Eliasberg.
Eliasberg responded: "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew," he said.
Scalia wasn't persuaded: "I don't think you can leap from that to the
conclusion that the only war dead that the cross honors are the
Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion."
see Eliasberg's point, but Scalia's notion that the cross has become a
generalized symbol of memorial strikes me as true too. Sure, you might
suspect that Scalia, a practicing Roman Catholic and a well-known
conservative, is simply seeking an argument that would allow the cross
in this case to pass constitutional muster, but he's also accurately
pointing to how entangled religion and culture are.
reading that the cross has a specialized religious significance
symbolizing the son of God who died for mankind's sins seems way too
narrow an interpretation. Does it mean that? Yes. Does it have other
Consider another common
symbol, the Star of David. It is a symbol of Judaism, but it is also an
ethnic, national and political symbol. It'd be hard, then, to say that
its significance is entirely spiritual or theological.
Sometimes, religious symbols have historical significance that in some
contexts can transcend their theological meaning. Five years ago, under
threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU, the Los Angeles County Board of
Supervisors voted to remove a cross from the county seal. In the
iconography of the seal, which had a number of symbolic images on it,
the cross stood for the Catholic missions whose founding in the late
18th century signaled the dawn of modern Los Angeles history. But the
ACLU claimed it represented "an impermissible endorsement of
Christianity by the county government." The supervisors didn't fight
it, but they should have.
In his 1996 book, "The Truth of
Broken Symbols," philosopher and theologian Robert C. Neville observed
that in predominantly secular societies, religious symbols often lose
their theological specificity and become broadly generalized. In fact,
he points to the American military cemetery in Cambridge, England,
where a "sign explains that a Star of David on a tombstone signifies
the grave of a Jewish soldier whereas a cross signifies 'all others.' "
Likewise, he notes that "clergy blessing governmental ceremonies are
performatively invoking divine aid by their very presence but are
likely to pray in terms so general as not to be specific to their own
religion's symbol system."
Culture is moving toward greater
syncretism, something you can see in the increase in interracial
marriage and the election of a black president. As for religion, a
recent survey found that Americans who don't identify with any religion
-- now 15% overall and 22% of all adults ages 18 to 29 -- make up the
fastest-growing religious "tradition" in the country.
problem with the ACLU's approach to religious symbols is that it's zero
sum and old school -- it is, dare I say it, puritanical. Its narrow
vision could rob the public sphere of symbols we need to understand who
we are, what we're about and where we came from.
The truth is
that even as we become a more secular country, religion will continue
to be an integral part of our society, history and culture. Indeed, our
very notions of politics and good government are the legacy of
zealously religious people. Even our ideals of religious freedom and
church/state division have roots in the theological convictions of
Colonial and Revolutionary-era Baptists and Presbyterians as much as in
the Enlightenment. Even if we don't as a nation profess one faith or
another, religion is at the core of American identity. To seek to root
it out of civic life and culture altogether is not only impossible,